Beyond the Rockstar Paradigm

October 29, 2009 //

During a plenary at TWI grantee Interfaith Youth Core’s conference Interfaith Youth Work: “Leadership for a Religiously Diverse World”, I was struck by Representative Keith Ellison’s, 5th Congressional District of Minnesota, vehement statement: “let’s differentiate between leaders and leadership.”  Clearly positional leaders can demonstrate very little leadership while those of us without positional authority can offer leadership at any moment.  Think about the volunteer who, in June of 1963, acted to print 50,000 instead of 5,000 fliers for the march (an immense effort in pre-Kinko’s times) that eventually helped bring over a million people to hear MLK speak in the mall.  Or the first Iranian protester to “tweet” about the government crackdown on demonstrations at Tehran University this past June.

This plenary on “Interfaith Leadership, Social Entrepreneurship, and Movement Building” left me asking:  What is the construct of leadership embedded in public consciousness and dialogue?  In our social movements?  In philanthropy?

It occurs to me that I can hardly begin to conceptualize leadership without calling to mind individual, inspirational people.  Even my example above of the civil rights volunteer implicitly holds MLK at its center.  Yet, this plenary got me mulling over an understanding of leadership in the form of “the invisible hands that move millions” vs. “the Rockstar.”

Every sector and community has its beloved Rockstars.   I’ll bet you can name 3 of your favorites now as you read this.  They are
highly profiled, often tokenized, win awards like the
MacArthur or the Gardener and are invited into prized cohorts like the Prime Movers or the Ashoka Fellows. 

An evolving definition of leadership might shift the attention into the “invisible” multitudes.  Though, given the proliferation social medias, is invisibility even an option?  Some might point out that open sourced leadership is already proliferating via social medias at rapid rates and scales, in ways that have yet to be truly absorbed by most of us.  So, my evolving definition here isn’t exactly a demand to make of everyone a Rockstar or to de-Rock our stars.

What I’m getting to is a both/and understanding.  It’s not about scrapping the model (and existing infrastructures) of the Rockstar paradigm over a completely faceless, open source model.  

Those “hubs” or “outliers” (i.e. Malcolm Gladwell) we dub Rockstars have a crucial role in social movements and are in symbiotic relationship with the 10,000 people following them on Twitter as well.  The edgiest, most strategic people in positional leadership that I know stay in the closest contact possible with the folks that are on the ground, moving their shared vision forward.   So the both/and is an awareness, attention, and resourcing not just the Rockstars but also the 10’s of thousands who are leading from their cell phones, doing what needs done in their homes, neighborhoods, and communities without waving a flag about it, launching untold projects, positively influencing their environments, or, in a million other ways, demonstrating leadership in their own contexts.  And connecting beyond those contexts in order to inspire and be inspired. n>

I’ll be honest.  This is incredibly refreshing to me.  Having been engaged on many fronts with the “issue” of a supposed “leadership crisis” for several years, conversations about leadership development that stick to a model of finding that singular bright star and resourcing her/him strike me as fantastical as the NBA draft.  The “one in a million” construct feels out of date to me.  If we understand leadership not as spread among on a chosen few, but shared amongst all of us, what then can we imagine? 

How do we (those in philanthropy, those designing civic engagement, those guiding non-profits organizations, those influencing social movements) imagine resourcing that lateral movement of many beyond supporting (funding, endorsing) a leader who is vertically at the top?  What does supporting leadership beyond the Rockstar paradigm look like?

I’d love to hear from you.  Especially if you are one of the many Rockstars that may be reading this.



  1. Christopher on October 30, 2009 at 10:44 am

    Pia, what a brilliant essay. I think, for starters, we need to distinguish between leaders who start social movements who remain at the top of the hierarchy (because they want to be a rock star) versus those who foment social movements of sorts that strive to create a world that recognizes we all have singular leadership talents and potentials, and that the great tragedy is that even the most open societies tend not to be structured in ways that facilitate this (or that even care to). It's one thing for a leader (such as a president) to tell us all that we are leaders, but it's another for him to help create the type of revolutionary, egalitarian structure necessary to realize this. Nonprofits themselves tend to have hierarchies because that is what is required for them to operate, but even so, some may recognize this as simply a necessary requirement, yet their outreach itself clearly demonstrates their efforts to make ours a world in which everyone's leadership capacities can be tapped into. Others, on the other hand, may claim to aim to create conditions that enable all to engage in civic activities whose full realization both hinge and thrive on their involvement, yet in truth thrive on the artificial hierarchies they putatively disdain. Here's where 'outcome' measures of creative qualitative and quantitative sorts can distinguish one from the other. I'm not sure the issue is one of scrapping the existing model and supplanting it with an open source one, but looking at what combination of paradigms might create a world in which, as Sly and the Family Stone put it, "Everybody is a star" — not a rock star, but someone who shines, whether she receives heaps of notoriety or praise, or little (if any) at all. Anyway, these are just some hurried thoughts to get the debate ball rolling.

  2. SandyHeierbacher on October 30, 2009 at 10:44 am

    This is a very interesting post, John! I've been thinking lately about how we can foster leadership in the dialogue & deliberation / public engagement community. In these touch economic times, young people are having a hard time establishing or continuing careers in this kind of work, and I've been disturbed to see some real rising leaders in this field have to change careers.

    People often get funding to bring "young people" to conferences and other gatherings in this field, but they are often college and graduate students who aren't necessarily going to focus on this type of work as a career.

    To me, it's the more 'established' young people in their 20s and 30s who need to be cultivated and supported in our field.

    I noticed at SOND2 recently (the Strengthening Our Nation's Democracy gathering of leaders in the "Democracy Reform Movement") that most of the people in the room were in their 50s and 60s. The younger people in the room didn't say much, and it made me wonder if the next generation of leaders in the democracy movement are getting the support and encouragement they need to step into many of these older leaders' shoes.

    I'd like to see up-and-coming leaders get together to talk about what it is that THEY need in order to keep their careers going strong and eventually step into these major leadership roles. I'd like to see them find ways to provide each other with ongoing support and encouragement, advice and connections to mentors.

    And just to clarify, I'm not talking about "rock stars" either–just some unsung up-and-comers who have fresh ideas, tons of energy, some real experience under their belt and lots of hootspah.

  3. SandyHeierbacher on October 30, 2009 at 10:46 am

    Sorry, Pia… I assumed the post was by John. What a great post! Hope my comments are of interest.

  4. Pia on October 30, 2009 at 11:23 am

    Hi Chris and Sandy:

    Thanks for the rich responses!

    Chris, you mention the creation of an "revolutionary, egalitarian structure" and
    I'm wondering if you (in your travels) have seen examples of these at work in
    the world successfully? I also really appreciate your notion of combining paradigms
    as opposed to supplanting the dominant one (because, of course, the single
    paradigm itself is part of the existing public narrative… aka the train wreck of
    our two party system battling out of health care reform as we speak). It seems
    to me that plurality and multiplicity are at the heart of your comments and, not
    surprisingly, at the center of the any potent and potentially viable possibilities
    for how to operate in our current context. Thank you!

    Sandy, I certainly hear/feel you about how youth are being engaged (or not) at
    conferences on leadership and D&D;! It seems to me that younger generations
    are highly engaged in discourses that take place way out of the traditional "civic
    forums." How are these conversations about how/where discourses are taking
    place showing up in the work you're doing at NCDD? I imagine there are some
    articles and blogs coming our way about your learnings at the Conference this
    year? Thanks!


  5. cingib on November 5, 2009 at 5:24 am


    This is terrific and echoes my own bleatings for what seems like eons about the tendency to view leadership through a rather tired prism of charismatic, top-down, "let me show you the way" models. The notion of leadership is rapidly shifting, due, in large part, to technology, which is allowing more people from all walks of life to weigh in and take action around issues they care about — a phenomenon that doesn't necessarily require a hierarchy in which one person is dubbed "the leader." Young people, research shows, also have a different notion of leadership in which everyone has skills that they can and do bring to bear when situations warrant it — a collaborative model that's less focused on one individual's public speaking or management skills and more on the ability of groups of people to work together to get something done. This is why some of us balk a bit at "leadership programs" that focus on "training young people to be leaders." While well-intentioned, such efforts rest on the old charismatic/hierarchical model that assumes leadership is a set of proscribed skills determined by others. That assumption is often behind the wailings over "the leadership deficit," which many young people might argue only exists if leadership is defined narrowly. When that happens, young people who are tapped for leadership positions tend to be those who are anointed by the Old Guard as leaders, rather than those who are practicing a new form of leadership such as that which you describe, Pia.

    On an auspicious note, there is lots occurring in this space, and a colleague and I are co-authoring a book on this very notion, so stay tuned!

  6. Pia on November 5, 2009 at 1:14 pm


    Thanks for your contribution – I certainly thought of your work as I generated this. I'm particularly interested in the impact of technology on our "traditional" notion of how dialogue happens, how discourse occurs, and how people are influenced to act in their own lives. . Please keep us posted on your upcoming book.

    Rock on …

  7. Heather on November 5, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    I totally agree – thanks to Cindy for forwarding this link. My research also supports the notion of shared leadership, and teams, rather than focusing so much effort and attention on the ED. I think the social entrepreneurship movement in particular has too long been held captive by the cult of the individual. Thank goodness our leadership paradigms are starting to change, and people are starting to embrace more collective notions.

  8. Mark Wilding on November 6, 2009 at 6:24 am

    I like this… especially the sense of both/and Pia. Why is it the emerging leaders can add so much — and what could "rock stars" do to refresh and renew themselves as leaders? Perhaps Susuki Roshi's famous quote might suggest one "possibility." "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few”

  9. Christopher on November 9, 2009 at 11:27 am

    Pia, I think we also need to look at what a social movement is or can be. There's a tendency to look at the 'rock star' type movements, and overlook the more invisible or subtle types, which really aren't invisible at all, once one directs one's attention their way. The burgeoning movement of public dialogue and deliberation groups, that serve sundry ends, is in and of itself one such movement, in my estimation.
    In answering your question about movements with revolutionary, egalitarian structures, one can take a gander at Hannah Arendt's 'On Revolution' and the "spontaneous councils" she writes about. It's most intriguing.
    cheers, Chris

  10. Pia on November 12, 2009 at 11:00 am

    I agree, Heather, that leadership paradigms have been shifting – yet, there's still a kind of entrenched-ness, if you will, of the traditional notions in so many of the structures and scaffolds of leadership.

    Mark, the both/and is such a useful tool and I like your question of leadership renewal.

    Chris, absolutely – it seems that process is being lifted up as important more consistently in public dialogues about, well, public dialogues. Haven't read any Arendt since I was studying Rhetoric at Cal. Thanks for the reminder ..